New Split, Old Issue: Same Sex Marriage Rends Wilmington YM

An Interview with Stephen Angell. Leatherock Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion.

NOTE: Wilmington Yearly Meeting comprises three Quarterly Meetings, two in southwest Ohio, and a third in eastern Tennessee, three hundred miles south. The group is mostly pastoral and programmed, and has been affiliated with Friends United Meeting.

A Friendly Letter (AFL):  Steve Angell (SA), thanks for doing this. So give us the scoop: has there been yet another yearly meeting split? Which one, when, and about what?

SA: The topic today is Wilmington Yearly Meeting, one of the smallest North American yearly meetings in Friends United Meeting. Its congregations are located in southwestern Ohio and Tennessee. ( A history of WYM to 1940 is online here.) The controversy is longstanding, and the background to the current difficulties is covered in Quaker Theology #30-31.

But the current intense phase arose in September 2016, when Cincinnati Friends Meeting, a semi-programmed meeting, held a wedding under its care for two women.

This event stirred up controversy over a set of issues that we’ve seen before, including Biblical interpretation, the authority of the yearly meeting, and the autonomy of monthly meetings.

(AFL):  So the key background issues here will be familiar to most American Friends. But to be more specific, in Wilmington YM (WYM) the situation seems to have come to a head after the approval of something called the Fairview Minute. Quaker Theology published your first report on this last winter, in Issue #30-#31. But can you remind us briefly about Wilmington YM, about what Fairview is, the thrust of its minute, and the reaction it evoked?

Historiography: a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. Steve Angell takes notes.

SA: Fairview Meeting approved a minute that proposed that the yearly meeting not interfere with local meetings’ course of action “on sensitive and complex issues” such as who they would marry. Many Wilmington Friends, and Friends meetings, that have not yet come to clearness to conduct same-gender marriages embraced the Fairview Minute, thus taking a stand on behalf of monthly meeting autonomy as it relates to issues such as marriage. Many other Friends firmly opposed the Fairview meeting, insisting that the Cincinnati Friends Meeting be disciplined for holding a same-gender marriage under its care.

(AFL):  We’re talking about this now, at the beginning of August 2018, because WYM just had its sessions on July 26-29, and there were some pretty specific actions there. Can you describe what happened?

SA: In the past year, it has become clear that WYM Friends are at an impasse, having unity neither to embrace the Fairview Meeting, nor to discipline Cincinnati Friends Meeting. Some Friends who oppose both same-gender marriage and the Fairview Minute feel that their only recourse at this point is to sever ties with Wilmington Yearly Meeting. At sessions the last week of July, the disaffiliation [that’s their term] of five meetings (two in Ohio and three in Tennessee) was approved: Cuba Friends Meeting, Friendsville Friends Meeting, Friends Church Nashville Preparatory Meeting, Hardins Creek Friends Church, and Rafter Chapel Friends Church.

Fairview Meeting, in New Vienna, Ohio.

(AFL):  So five WYM meetings of a (previous total of 28) have now left, or in their term, “disaffiliated.”  You told me earlier that this is unlikely to be the last of the departures. What’s your best guess as to how many more may go before this split is finished?

SA: As many as ten more meetings are likely to leave over the coming year or so. If that turns out to be the case, Wilmington Yearly Meeting will be left with 13 of the 28 meetings it had as of July 1, 2018.

(AFL):  You told me that the proceedings last weekend were reasonably calm, as everyone pretty well knew where everyone stood. But there was one exchange that was unexpected. What was that about?

SA: A Friend from a meeting that is likely to disaffiliate (but has not yet done so) complained that the meetings who continue to hold to the truths that WYM Friends have held, that marriage is between one man and one woman, should not have to be the ones to leave the yearly meeting. Instead, in her view, it should be the Friends who are changing doctrine who should leave.

Robert Barclay’s “Apology” was the first major Quaker theological treatise. It has had many critics & defenders, from among both evangelical and liberal Friends.

This evoked a response from Friends who support the Fairview Minute. One part of the response by a Cincinnati Friend confronted the view of those disaffiliating that current leadings can never contradict the Scriptures. This derives from a portion of seventeenth-century Quaker theologian Robert Barclay’s exposition of the place of the Scriptures in Quaker faith and practice. This Cincinnati Friend pointed out that Barclay also said that the Scripture is not the ultimate authority for Friends, that the Spirit is the ultimate authority for Friends, to which the Scripture is secondary. Thus, both those remaining with WYM, and those disaffiliating, draw one of their core arguments from the writings of Barclay.

(AFL):  Let me try to be clear on this: was the key point of contention at WYM, at least as stated, not the issue of same sex marriage itself, but more what the YM should do about meetings that were willing to tolerate being in a yearly meeting where some other meetings do support same sex marriage? [Note: An extensive collection of minutes from meetings in WYM, including the Fairview Minute, is in Attachment #4: : INDIVIDUAL MEETING STATEMENTS ON SAME SEX MARRIAGE AND/OR WYM UNITY” of the 2017 WYM Minutes, online in full here.]

SA: Great question. While that seems generally to be true, let me hasten to add that, among the constellation of areas of disagreement, there is no consensus among the Friends staying and those disaffiliating as to which area of disagreement is paramount. Many Friends disaffiliating see the lack of fidelity to a literal interpretation of Scripture, at least as they understand it, as a paramount issue. When addressing the grounds for the current set of disagreements, an initial draft of the WYM Epistle specified that “Biblical interpretation is at the heart of our uneasiness and distrust.” After some discussion on the floor of the yearly meeting on the last day of sessions, the final version of the Epistle expanded the exposition of the grounds for disagreement as follows:

“We agreed that Biblical interpretation is at the heart of our uneasiness and distrust, and that we are not able to come to the same place in how we read the scriptures, or in how we view the autonomy of the Monthly Meetings and the authority of the Yearly Meeting. This is evidenced by our disagreement regarding the Christian understanding of marriage.”

Perhaps one could say that the decisive defining line of disagreement was between those who respected the autonomy of monthly meetings, and, on the other hand, those who wished that monthly meetings would subordinate themselves through mutual submission to an understanding of Christian doctrine that would define marriage as between one man and one woman. Almost any formulation ends up invoking at some point the entire constellation of issues. It can be seen as a hologram.

(AFL):   Was there any indication of what the non-tolerationists thought ought to be done with meetings which, though disapproving of same sex marriage themselves, were willing to tolerate other meetings in WYM that did approve of it? Am I right in inferring that forcing out the tolerant meetings would seem to be the logical outcome of this stance? Isn’t that what happened in another recent YM split in the region? Did anyone in WYM suggest that? If not, what other options were mentioned, if any?

SA: Meetings that favor disaffiliation want to separate themselves completely from any meeting that supports the autonomy of monthly meetings within WYM to choose for themselves what marriages to conduct and how. This is a fundamental point for most disaffiliating meetings. They do not want to remain in the same Yearly Meeting nor the same Quarterly Meeting with meetings that do not favor disciplining other meetings that hold same-gender marriages under their care.

(AFL): You told me that at least one pastor argued that same sex marriage was bad or sinful, but that splitting the YM was even worse? Can you clarify that line of argument for us?

SA: I suppose that I can try. Unity in Christian Churches has been an important ideal from the beginning. It has been honored at least as much in the breach as in the observance. The impressive unity between the parties of James and Paul at the Jerusalem council in 49 was followed in short order by the quarreling and (sinful?) parting of long-time ministry co-laborers Paul and Barnabas, at least in the telling of the book of Acts. So those who argue against disaffiliation in WYM, see and proclaim how important the ideal (and hopefully the reality) of Christian and Quaker unity is, even with those with whom they are in disagreement on some aspects of Quaker faith and practice.

(AFL):  Any idea of where the meetings that have left (or will soon leave) WYM might end up? In another existing YM? Starting a new association? Independent?

SA: The short answer is no, we’ll just have to wait and see. Let me try a longer answer, too. Wilmington Yearly Meeting is encouraging those meetings that disaffiliate to find other yearly meeting associations, arguing that they are vital for fellowship and accountability. Monthly Meetings that leave their yearly meetings (and now I’m not just discussing WYM) often have experienced significant trauma and are wary of any yearly meeting authority which will try to compel their submission to something they are not conscientiously led to do on their own. So whether they will follow WYM’s advice remains to be seen. Leadership will need to step up among disaffiliating meetings in order to make new yearly meeting ties happen. This seems possible. Possibilities might include affiliating with Indiana Yearly Meeting, or affiliating with Evangelical Friends, or starting their own yearly meeting.

(AFL): A journal you help edit, Quaker Theology, has been reporting on related yearly meeting divisions since 2003. (So has this blog!) You did much of that reporting. Wilmington becomes the fifth YM in this recent wave of splits. As a professor of Quaker Studies, what are your thoughts about these fifteen years of internal struggle? Do these problems simply mirror & echo outside politics & “culture wars”? Can you see any significance for U.S. or world Quakerism?

SA: See below.

(AFL): Will you be writing a fuller report on WYM for Quaker Theology?

SA: Yes, and I hope to address many of those broader issues in that fuller report.

Quaker Theology’s issue #30-#31, which has the earlier report about Wilmington YM’s labor over this issue. It is online at www.quakertheology.org . It is also available at Amazon & on Kindle.

 

11 thoughts on “New Split, Old Issue: Same Sex Marriage Rends Wilmington YM”

  1. At this time there are about thirty-eight thousand Christian denominations. A call for unity in a religion that is historically divisive is, after two thousand years, at best a pipe dream and at worst laughable.

    Quakers fit nicely into the model set by the members of the Council at Jerusalem. They has been at each other’s throats since Naylor’s little escapade. While studying Edward Hicks Journal, I was shocked to discover that fist fights broke out in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting before the ink was dry on the Declaration.
    As one prospective member of a meeting near me said to Monthly Meeting over their shoulders as they went out the door, “For all your talk about peace, you’re not a very peaceful group.”

  2. Where any of the participants in this struggle to control other’s spiritual journeys wearing grey colored hats that said “Make Quakerism Great Again!” ?

  3. Has anyone thought of studying Baltimore Yearly Meeting(BYM) as a way to understand how a yearly meeting might stay unified?

    I often wonder if the initial split of that yearly meeting in the mid-1800s, and its subsequent one hundred year aftermath, so traumatized that yearly meeting; that once it unified in the mid-1900s it psychologically vowed, “never again”. The meetings in BYM seem to have much spiritual diversity and yet unity as well. Although outsiders label BYM as a non-Christian Quaker group, it really isn’t; meetings can be very diverse from each other. Some Friends in it follow the teachings of Jesus closely and others have non-Christian leanings. Yet, all of these Friends seem to enjoy meeting for worship together. Within the same meeting, there can be Bible study/discussion regularly and also regular studies/discussions about non-Christian writings. Their meetings for worship can have messages about Jesus’ life and teachings, as well as messages about Buddha, Lao-tzu, and others. How did BYM reach a state where their unity is simply in Love and Light rather than doctrinal beliefs? This type of mindset seems to me to be what Jesus actually modeled as seen by his parables, words, etc. in the New Testament books, as well as the Gospel of Thomas (which is not part of the canonized Bible).

    I would love to read a book about BYM with a theme of how a yearly meeting could indeed stay united without “forcing” unity.

    1. Great idea, Howard. I nominate you to undertake it. And you’d better get started, as I’m sure there’s much material to be mastered, not only about BYM itself, but also its “life & Times,” through 340-plus years, of War, peace, more war, slavery, emancipation, retrenchment, boom& bust, modernization, and the long march to what they called “consolidation,” the story of which is shamefully all but untold. Keep me posted!

    2. Your description of Baltimore Yearly Meeting reminds me of New York Yearly Meeting which also split in the 19th century and reunited in the 20th. There continue to be tensions and at least one meeting left us during my lifetime, but the big picture is one of mutual toleration (not quite the same thing as unity, but not to be sneezed at).
      One difference with WYM is that many and maybe most Christocebtric Friends in NYYM are affirming of sane gender marriage and of LGBTQ dignity in general.

      1. Rich, I am thrilled to read that most in NYYM are in support, as I am, of SANE gender marriage for all. I truly believe it’s a concept whose time has come.

  4. Chuck, I have said this before, if you can’t accept ALL ~ you don’t deserve being able to call yourself Quaker, because You’re not!!

    (friend of Bryan Drayton and J William Frost)

  5. Here we are again, Friend Fager. I was hoping that Quakers had been paying attention to recent YM events (outside their own YM, I mean) and learning from the other splits and disagreements. It seems they HAVE paid close attention, but I fear the wrong lesson has been learned.

    Sometimes I wonder why I don’t despair over all this. I have feet in two Quaker worlds, the “evangelical” and the “liberal-unprogrammed” (with, perhaps, a pinky finger reaching into the Conservative). I see much lacking in Quaker-spiritual depth in the larger clusters of these Friends.

    An article I read today in the WILMINGTON NEWS JOURNAL quoted one Friend as saying, “…it has become impossible for us to remain in meaningful fellowship with those Meetings who try to define God’s Word as an outdated historical novel.” There’s just one of the problems: when did Quakers equate the written scriptures with the Word of God (which was in the beginning, which was involved in all Creation long before the birth of Yeshua)? At the other extreme are those who pick and choose their favorite Bible passages and choose to ignore the others (ditto those who do the same with early Friends’ writings, by the way).

    There is something missing from these debates, some key point that escapes us. I’ve got a feeling, but no words for it yet. [Yeah, and it’s likely more than one important thing…]

    Well, if you’d like a topic suggested to you for a future blog post, here’s what I’d like: compare how these YMs (Indiana, North Carolina, Northwest, Wilmington) handled their splits: kicking some out, agreeing to keep an “umbrella” organization, helping to form a new YM, and just plain ol’ walking away.

    Keep the faith, bro! Thanks for your (and Friend Angell’s) work of writing the history.

    1. Thanks, Julie. Steve Angell & I have begun talking about some kind of overview/reflections on the “tumults & shakings” of these recent years, working from the (admittedly fallible) notion that this wave of fissiparousness may have crested, and some useful patterns or examples might be drawn from it. At the least, we’ve Churned out enough Unduplicated reportage to fill a decent-sized book. (Whether anyone might want to read what now mostly looks like a pretty dismal, disjointed chronicle, is an open question.) And one thing that’s already pretty clear to me is that, if there were any lessons to be learned from the century-plus traumas of 1827, many U.S. Friends by 2018 have shown that we’re fully capable of forgetting all of them.

  6. Geez, I haven’t even finished your double issue and here you two go again. 🙂 Happened to stumble on it tonight before I read this post, and noted the bookmark was about 1/3 of the way through. Time to pick it up again so I’m ready for the next installment.

    What led to the differences in breakup is of interest to this reader of yours. My quick take is the nature of the power structure in Indiana (strong group of literalist Elders) and NC (mega-churches as a financial power-vector) vs. Wilmington, which seems to have lacked a strong literalist power vector of any kind.

    Thanks for the update,

    Hank

    1. Hank, we’ll get into those questions in the next issue of “Quaker Theology.” Meantime, feel free to speculate. [But I will slip in one note: in North Carolina, there were a few who dreamed (& still do) of building megachurches, but those are still no more than dreams; a few middle-sized non-mega types were about the best one can find here; many more small & struggling. What does that tell us? Stay tuned.] PS. Keep plugging away at that double issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *